Neb. lawmakers propose juvenile system reforms

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Associated Press

Posted on January 24, 2013 at 10:01 AM

Updated Thursday, Jan 24 at 10:05 AM

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Four Nebraska lawmakers announced a proposal Wednesday to overhaul the state's juvenile justice system and focus on youth mental health.

Omaha state Sen. Brad Ashford said his plan aims to focus on rehabilitating and treating troubled youth rather than confining juveniles. Additionally, Ashford's bill calls for youth entering the juvenile justice system to be screened for mental health, trauma, education history and other risk factors.

Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln, a co-sponsor of Ashford's bill, also introduced legislation that would call for youth to undergo mandatory mental and behavioral health screening in kindergarten, seventh and ninth grades. McGill also proposes doctors and schools should have access to treatment by video conference.

"Our vision is to see a state in five to ten years where children are not exposed to violence, where children are not involved in violence," Ashford said. "...The violence will stop if we have the will to pursue these matters aggressively."

The proposed legislation would close Department of Health and Human Services-run Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Geneva and Kearney and The Office of Juvenile Services. A new office of Juvenile Assistance would replace those by January 2015, and would subsume the $28 million annual budget for the juvenile services' office.

The Nebraska court system would run the office and oversee juvenile-related services, including probation and detention alternatives. The bill also requests $10 million to invest in a community-based juvenile services aid program, which would help treat juveniles who are wards of the state.

Ashford has said reforming the system is his top priority this year. He and his fellow senators have found that keeping youth in community and family environments helps them more than incarceration.

Ashford said he thinks the proposed reforms would work given the successes of the state's juvenile pilot program introduced by lawmakers last year. The program has been tested in Omaha, North Platte and Scottsbluff and has allowed 80 percent of youth to seek treatment at home rather than being institutionalized.

The children who need to remain under supervision would be relocated to one of the states five county juvenile detention facilities, Ashford said. The counties currently don't have the funding to hold extra youth, so Ashford said money would need to be allocated.

Gov. Dave Heineman and the Department of Health and Human Services have not yet reviewed the bill and declined to comment.

For McGill, the bill is an extension of the promise she made to reform youth mental health services in 2008, after several parents dropped their older kids off at hospitals due to no age limit restrictions in the safe haven law. The Legislature later added a 30-day age limit.

Ashford added he's not sure he'd be addressing mental health reform if it weren't for the safe haven debate. McGill said the Legislature got sidetracked with foster care reform last year, and also said this bill is a response to the increased number of mass shootings.

"Now is the time to look back and say what can we do fulfill this promise? What can we do to in light of the increasing number of shootings that are happening in our country?" she said. "I don't think gun control is the primary solution. I think this is."

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